Anxiety is reaching epidemic proportions in the Western world. Yes, the affluent West where the drinking water doesn’t kill you, where there’s always too much food on the table, where every house contains a full array of everything digital. In America, the land of opportunity and unparalleled wealth, 40 million adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, with 6.8 million suffering from GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) the sort of anxiety that follows you about every single day without actually stopping you from doing anything. In the UK roughly 15 million people suffer from anxiety and the sub-set of specific anxiety disorders.
So what’s the West got to worry about?
Well there’s terrorism, obviously. And how about an antibiotics-resistance Apocalypse? Or the collapse of civilisation when the oil runs out. Or getting a job and then keeping that job? And that job you keep turning up to every day – does a nagging sense of unfulfillment tug at the back of your mind? The sense that the ‘you’ in the workplace isn’t really ‘you’ at all – that it’s all a kind of pretence, a game, because you’re dealing with a culture that rates success above everything else and defines you by the job you do. And it all involves comparing yourself to others – in looks, social ease, confidence, earning power.
Not married? Will you ever be? Single? Will you ever find someone? – and does contemplating a future alone cause a momentary sensation of all out panic?
We live in a wealthy, industrialised society that’s based on performance. How do you perform under pressure? Do you measure up to everyone else out there and what happens when you discover that, in society’s eyes, you simply don’t make the grade? That everyone else is ‘getting on’ in the world, while life is passing you by. And what if you’re the kind of girl/boy who doesn’t want a ‘career’; who just wants the simple life. Or a girl (more specifically) for whom the feminists’ ‘glass ceiling’ means nothing; who loves home and domesticity and family – but the pressure is on to ‘make something’ of your life – where’s that internal struggle going to lead you?
And when your default setting is ‘high anxiety’, then you frequently don’t make the grade. You’re turning up to interviews bringing low self-esteem, low confidence and maybe a bit of social-anxiety along with you – things that western society makes clear it can do without.
Our society is based on the rational world of Science, bringing with it the assumption that we can control our surroundings, that we are the architects of our own lives and when something unexpected happens, something that turns your world upside down – what then? Can you continue making sense of the world around you, or does it begin to look like a chaotic, frightening mess, one that you’d rather not be a part of.
And then the Fear sets in and you wonder what’s happening. Because nothing seems safe. Not places, not other people, not life itself.
To doctors that kind of anxiety is a disorder, it’s most definitely not normal, and must be medicated into oblivion but I happen to think (and you care what I think don’t you?) that anxiety is the most natural response in the world; to living in the kind of world we happen to live in.
But that’s because I’m a worrier isn’t it? The kind of person who sucks all the joy out of everything – like a housewifely Dementor. The kind of person who says ‘look before you leap’, who doesn’t think bungee jumping would make you feel more alive, and could in fact leave you feeling very very dead. Ditto skydiving. Who thinks that entering a room full of strangers with the intention to ‘socialise’ is what the Christians refer to when they go on about Hell.
Who wants to go through the wardrobe to Narnia and stay there – forgetting that that imaginary place is as full of terrorists as this one, AND ruled by an Evil Queen.
Ok, if somebody from the 14th century came along now and had a butchers at this – which is unlikely I know (as unlikely as someone from this century taking a look) – not least because back then your average Joe couldn’t read – they’d be laughing in my anxiety-ridden face. You think you’ve got problems, they’d be saying. Anxiety an epidemic? Want to talk epidemics Mrs – try the Black Death.
And speaking of illness and death. I avoid seeing doctors as much as I can but on the odd occasions I’ve felt it necessary to get one of them to have a poke and prod around I’ve been greeted with: ‘you seem a little anxious about this’, or ‘are you normally an anxious type of person’, or ‘would you mind just filling out this anxiety questionnaire please so I can determine what kind of a nutjob you really are.’
This doctorley reaction is usually because I begin every consultation with: ‘I’ve got x, y or z symptom and it’s pointing towards cancer/brain tumour/MS’. The last appointment resulted in my new young kindly doc saying you’ve probably got Health Anxiety and directing me to some website where I could ring a number and talk to someone helpful. I pointed out I couldn’t ring the number because another of my myriad problems is a stammer (at this point you’d think he’d have given up.) I continued with, I know I have Health Anxiety and it isn’t something I need counselling for. Yes it is, he replied, it’s an illness, it’s not normal. Health Anxiety isn’t abnormal, I said, it’s more a reaction to the fact that one day I’m going to DIE. No it’s a bona fide illness – go to this website and ring the helpline. I left before I could tell him about the million other bona-fide anxiety illnesses I have.
Anyway, so Health Anxiety is now a disease, whereas I see the monitoring of any lumps and bumps, the sticking out of the tongue every morning, the feeling of the pulse, the pulling the eyelids down to check if I’m anaemic, more as a healthy pastime designed to nip any ‘proper’ disease in the bud. But apparently this is not the case – these kind of activities are indicative of mental illness.
So are these kinds of activities:
Not driving on a motorway.
Going on a motorway only if the husband is driving whilst issuing frequent commands regarding speed, use of mirrors, choice of lane and gripping the door handle in terror for hours.
Not answering the telephone (landline) because it could be a nasty cold caller
Not answering the front door because it could be a nasty cold caller
Not flying because of terrorist threats and the unnerving sensation that I’m sitting on nothing more than a gigantic petrol bomb, with possibly another bomb (terrorist variety) attached to it
Never going by train alone – ever
Being a stranger to the Bus
Never eating anything even a minute past its sell by date
Never venturing into a major city unless I absolutely have to.
Never watching the News
My doctor would view this list in a very dim light, and mutter darkly about ‘avoidance behaviours’ and ‘abnormal levels of anxiety’ and that I’m in dire need of pharmaceutical intervention. Of course, in a way, he’s right. If everybody got the jitters like I do, whilst just living life, the entire shebang would grind to a halt.
But my current state of background free floating anxiety is as nothing compared to the state of acute anxiety I experienced nine years ago, lasting roughly three years. That I can believe is an illness.
Sensitisation resulted in an inability to stand at the till in a supermarket queue without feeling off balance, or feeling a strong compulsion to escape the premises, leaving everything behind on the conveyer belt. It meant sitting at the hairdressers, feeling trapped in the chair because the dye had been plastered on and I couldn’t very well say I’m sorry but I have to rush out of this building immediately or something terrible is likely to happen.
It meant barely having the strength to carry a couple of carrier bags or to walk up the stairs. Every momentary chest pain was a heart attack. My body ached everywhere, even though that body was barely moving, which meant some pervasive arthritis or deadly underlying disease was at work. It meant focusing inwards – becoming aware of my breathing and heartbeat. It produced an unpleasant sensation that my throat was closing up, that I would choke to death. It narrowed my world down to my bedroom. After getting up I would last about an hour, on edge, on high alert, doing minor housework before going back to the safety of bed and sleeping, and sleeping, and sleeping.
And once I had a panic attack. Sitting in the passenger seat of the car, coming back from Sainsbury’s. A most curious sensation that suddenly there was something covering my face and I couldn’t breathe, was in fact suffocating. The sensation was so real I tried to pull this imaginary something off, creating further panic and causing the long suffering husband to pull over.
Sensitisation is a peculiar thing. One day I was functioning, the next day I ran down like a clockwork toy and just stopped.
The trusted doctor at the time said: ‘ok this anxiety seems more acute, let’s see if a psychiatrist can help’. And the psychiatrist determined in approximately 5 minutes that I didn’t have a serious problem and was in fact behaving normally in the stressful circumstances, so would I go away and never bother him again, which I did.
‘Normally in the stressful circumstances.’
So the venerable head shrink agreed with me. Us millions of anxiety sufferers are behaving normally in an abnormally stressful world. And most of us keep going too because when you’re a worrier, you’re paradoxically someone that people can rely on. You will answer every text and every email because you worry how the person at the other end will feel if you don’t. You take your responsibilities seriously. You’re afflicted with a sense of duty. You have a tendency to not smoke or drink because you’ll immediately get cancer and liver disease. You don’t take anything lightly – everything is very, very serious. You have a need to control your surroundings – you don’t go in for the practical joke at all. You’re the kind of mother who when, many motherly moons ago, their sons’ friends came for a sleep over; said friends could be overheard remarking: ‘your mum sleeps with one eye open.’
And you feel GUILTY about everything, all the time. Not least because you’re a silly anxiety sufferer and there are people out there being policemen and doctors and teachers and soldiers.
But I’m giving myself a break. Maybe my anxiety is simply holding up a mirror to our stressful, hectic, information-overloaded lives. And I’m not alone – there are 15 million other people out there just like me – now that’s a sobering thought isn’t it?